Shortcut Safety Leadership

Wise strategists understand shortcuts are not their enemy.

Are you, like many leaders, concerned about "safety shortcuts"? In my experience, most associate this with actions employees take they know they shouldn't because they're (pick one): a) too lazy, b) stupid, c) too ornery, or d) don't care much about their own safety. Boils down to a blame-the-worker root that supports each "shortcut's" stem.

We've seen too many times where people -- executives, managers, professionals, supervisors, or workers -- tend to first point their finger at others for many of their problems, and often at other organizational levels. For example, assembly workers question/grumble about site management purchasing equipment that causes production bottlenecks, while managers in turn blame injuries on workers' shortcuts. In reality, managers don't choose equipment they think will fail while workers struggle to keep equipment running efficiently; the latter don't want to get injured but are engaged in tradeoffs.

This "it's-your-fault" mindset is present in all kinds of organizations. But unfortunately, blaming backfires, diverting attention from finding effective solutions. And besides sparking pushback, blaming weakens leaders, a tacit admission they are powerless to generate improvements.

Then again, many companies seek to sidestep worker shortcuts by "idiot-proofing" machinery. Such "fool"-proofing disengages 180 degrees from many companies' objective. And even if a planner could conceive every possible shortcut and then create impossible-to-sidestep fixes –- a big if -- each guard would be specific to one task or machine. Further, it's not possible to apply this to every task, tool, and environment. Nor does it prepare workers to think through and make best decisions when environments are changing or uncontrollable.

So let's recalibrate. One person's shortcut is another's efficient/streamline action. Assume most workers aren't stupid and don't want to hurt themselves. That there are reasons for their taking shortcuts such as:

  • saving time for themselves and for the company. And even in improving cultures that currently value safety, long-term workers' mindset may be protectively preconditioned this way, reflecting older corporate "productivity" messages.
  • reducing energy expenditure (where shortcuts become methods for fatigue management among heavily workloaded or aging employees)
  • not thinking cumulatively, not realizing small units of excessive tensions can lead to "straw that broke the camel's back" injuries
  • "getting away" with a shortcut previously without repercussion (e.g., not wearing eye shields without suffering injury)

Addressing workers' shortcuts with heavy-handed messages just make Safety leaders appear unrealistic or negative. Ditto, avoid rocketing out mixed messages ("slow down," "one step at a time") that are in mortal conflict with deeper organizational expectations ("just get it out the door.")

So what does work?

First, take out the "loaded." Reposition "shortcuts" as having both positive and negative aspects, rather than just resistant/stupid actions to be squelched. According to one online dictionary, "A shortcut is a method of achieving something more quickly or more easily than if you use the usual methods." If the term "shortcuts" is too negatively loaded, replace it with a more neutral one ("efficient safety actions," "re-routes," "timesavers," "bypass").

Do what you can to reduce "bad" shortcuts but without stigmatizing any streamlining of SOPs. "Good" shortcuts save time without significantly increasing risk of injury. If you think about it, using tools or employing leverage are forms of taking shortcuts versus just muscling a task.

Second, leaders assume personal responsibility for their own negative shortcuts; bad shortcuts are not restricted to workers. When they see others taking shortcuts about which they're concerned, strong leaders ask themselves, "What have I/we done to spur their making ill-advised workarounds?" or "Are we failing to provide consistent messaging?"

Further, best tone-setters examine whether they're actually exemplifying a "shortcut culture":

  • "Shortsighted savings" by not providing needed safety supervision training while still magically expecting front-line supervisors to be responsible for safety, or not transferring new task methods that support changes in policies or procedures.
  • "Saving phantom time" -- executives and managers not showing up at safety conferences, recognition ceremonies, safety meetings, and more. Invisibility sends infinitely stronger cultural messages than good words alone.
  • "Ignoring the convenience factor" -- not providing needed PPE near the site where workers are expected to use it.
  • "Trying to have it both ways" by communicating to workers that productivity is king, "rush to make things happen," and also "slow down and put Safety first."
  • "Watching them closely until they perform correctly" -- policing forms of employee monitoring (checklist audits or electronically watching drivers or office personnel) without first transferring to them best and safest decision-making processes and performance skills.
  • Promoting stress or distraction -- holding back communications, encouraging job insecurity, expecting them to unrealistically get too much done in too short a period, and generally "keeping employees on their toes"

Third, leaders promote effective replacement shortcuts:

  • Cumulative thinking
  • Kinesthetic understanding that "small positive changes can make large differences" in personal safety
  • Shortening and simplifying forms others are expected to complete
  • Building in step-by-step change procedures, rather than dumping a large deadlined project in their laps
  • Setting up quick and realistic help for those whose actions need upgrades

Strong leaders embrace the yin-yang strategy of supporting positive timesavers while helping reduce targeted at-risk shortcuts. And rather than heavy-handedly hitting on a slew of "don'ts," best leaders offer a few "do's." That is, they invite and set positive alternate shortcuts (e.g., how to employ handy and readily accessible checklists for locking out a machine so they're unlikely to miss a critical step).

Wise strategists understand shortcuts are not their enemy. Help leaders move away from the "blame employees" precipice. Root out the most dangerous practices while simultaneously maximizing positive shortcuts that help all boost their leverage, safety, and engagement.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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